The UK Can Only Be A Human Rights Leader When We Get Our Own House In Order

So long as the government refuses to end the indefinite detentionor scrap discriminatory hostile environment policies, the UK’s appointment of an ambassador to champion human rights around the globe will be tainted by hypocrisy.
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It was Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the driving forces behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, who said: “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world”. The UK would be well served to reflect on these sage words and take a hard look at its own recent human rights record.

Earlier this week, the foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt appointed the UK’s first ever international human rights ambassador. Rita French, the Foreign Office said, would be the UK’s first global champion for human rights across the globe.

On her appointment, French said: “Human rights are the essential foundations for a fair, open and transparent society”. She hit the nail on the head. But her words ring hollow set against the reality of a British state which is ever more hostile to criticism – however well deserved – from the international community.

In the same week as French’s appointment, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, published his final report on poverty in the UK. In coruscating terms, the report sets in stark relief the human cost of austerity policies introduced in 2010 and which “continue largely unabated despite the tragic social consequences”.

The government’s response has been revealing. Rather than engaging with the substance of Alston’s report, the government has instead sought to distract from its findings by misrepresenting the process behind it. The work and pensions secretary, Amber Rudd has announced plans to lodge a formal complaint with the UN alleging political bias and insufficient research, a transparently political move emblematic of the UK’s mounting disregard for international human rights bodies. Particularly when faced with criticism.

Alston’s report was the second time in as many weeks that the UN has called for the UK to uphold basic human rights standards. Last week the UN Committee Against Torture published damning findings which, among other things, criticised the UK for its ongoing failure to establish an independent judge-led inquiry into UK involvement in torture and rendition.

Just days later, news broke of a secret Ministry of Defence policy on torture that allows ministers to sign off intelligence-sharing that could lead to the abuse of detainees in clear violation of domestic and international human rights law. This latest revelation makes it hard to believe that the UK engaged with the Committee in good faith, having failed to disclose the policy when questioned by the treaty body.

The UK’s appointment of an ambassador to champion human rights around the globe will be tainted by hypocrisy so long as the Government refuses to end the indefinite detention of tens of thousands or migrants or scrap discriminatory hostile environment policies and continues to respond aggressively to any outside scrutiny.

If the UK wants to hold onto its reputation as a human rights leader it must set an example by getting its own house in order.

Nadia O’Mara is advocacy and policy officer at Liberty


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